Last week, I linked to my last View From the Bottom article about addiction-based game design. It was originally meant to be a two part article, but most of the second half had to be lost to fit everything into one part.
This is the original second part of the article, which gives more examples and clarifies the sort of design elements I'm trying to isolate here. A tad dry, perhaps, but worthwhile. I think that World of Warcraft grindy addictiveness can be found in a lot of more games and systems (like achievements) than it first appears.
About Addiction-Based Design, Part 2.
In the last article, I wrote about addiction-based game design. This is game design that encourages players to experience the same content again and again (often referred to as "grinding") in return to obtain a series of little rewards. These constant positive reinforcements (money building up, skills increased, experience bars filling) are very satisfying, to the point of being mildly addicting.
It's a powerful design technique, and there are a lot of good examples of it being used (and pointedly not being used). Some of the examples are quite surprising.
Massively multiplayer games are probably the best example of encouraging addiction. When character advancement is frequently referred to as a "treadmill" and gold farmers earn money playing the game for other people's behalf, that should tell you something. Every level or nice piece of loot results in a feeling of satisfaction and achievement. If you play these games any amount of time, you will see players get into passionate arguments about who gets the nice treasure a monster just dropped. Of course they do. They are junkies fighting for a nice hit of their drug of choice.
However, there are other excellent examples that don't involve MMORPGs at all. Consider the Lego games (Lego Star Wars, Lego Indiana Jones, etc.). The gameplay in these games, when you use adorable Lego people to reenact their namesake movies, is fairly simple and repetitive. Much of the fun comes from playing the levels over and over again to gather money, characters, and hidden treasure. Lego games encourage grinding the levels to earn cash to buy a stunning variety of rewards. Oh Legos, when did you turn to the Dark Side?
Games in the tower defense genre also use repetitive gameplay, accompanied with rewards, but in a far more benign way. In these games, you generally defend against waves of increasingly powerful but otherwise similar foes. You use the money from the victims to buy stronger defenses. It is the entire grinding/reward cycle, compressed pleasingly into a few minutes. The free Flash game Desktop Tower Defense is an excellent example of the genre, and it also shows that games can create that satisfying illusion of achievement without necessarily eating up huge chunks of time.
Another amusing example is the free game Progress Quest. It is a brilliant parody of the RPG genre, a game that plays itself. You just run it and watch your character gain levels. It's quite funny, and yet it is worrying how satisfying watching that bar fill up can be.
One of the best and most interesting examples of addiction-based game design, in my view, is Achievements, that metagame that can lay a layer of grinding and reward-gathering on top of even the most innocent game. Even World of Warcraft has them now, a move of awe-inspiring cruelty to its already fixated player base.
Addiction-based design is a powerful tool, but it is not necessary to create a fantastic game. There are games at the other end of the spectrum, that completely resist addiction-based design in their quest to provide fun. Tetris is a classic example. Left 4 Dead is another. You start a game, play for two hours, and you are done. Music games like Rock Band have a few grinding aspects (like gathering stars and fans for your band), but the bulk of the fun simply comes from picking a song you like and noodling along to it for three minutes. You can grind out fans, but it's completely incidental to the point of the game.
Here's a good rule of thumb: If a game doesn't need to save your progress or scores to be fun, it's fun isn't addiction based. It might be addictive, but it is that way simply because it's fun.
And, now that I've done as well as I can illustrating this aspect of game design, I have to ask the big question: Is it bad? Is it something that "good" designers resist?
No. We should understand what is going on and notice it when it's happening, but trying to addict your players is not inherently a bad thing. In moderation, the grind/reward cycle is like alcohol ... Pleasant, in moderation. The sense of achievement when gaining a level, or, you know, an Achievement, is real. It is odd that it's so satisfying, but it is satisfying, and we designer would be foolish to ignore it. Heck, I write role-playing games, a genre that is almost entirely founded on the grind/reward cycle.
But, like Spider-Man, we should use our powers for good and not for evil. If we want to write innovative games that further the genre and take it more in the direction of an art form, we have to make games that are more than just examples of some experiment where a mouse hits a lever and makes food pellets fall out. In my ideal world, it would be one color in our palette, nothing more.
But, then again, World of Warcraft has eleven million subscribers. So what do I know?